License law opens door for millions

10/10/2013

Passing a driver’s license test is for many American teenagers a rite of passage impeded only by parallel parking. Yet undocumented immigrants in California have long been blocked from obtaining the two-by-three-inch piece of plastic, no matter how adept they may be behind the wheel. A bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last week will finally allow that population to apply for driver’s licenses, albeit with distinctive markings and limited uses. 

State officials have estimated that about 1.4 million people will apply for the license in the three years after the law is implemented at the beginning of 2015.

The impacts of AB 60 could be felt acutely in West Marin, where there is both negligible public transportation and a large number of Latinos, many of whom work on remote dairies, ranches and oyster farms. Stories of the day-to-day difficulties faced by those who drive without licenses are not difficult to find.

After one local couple was stopped this year, a police officer wanted to ticket them and allegedly brought a child who was in their car to tears; that officer was persuaded by another officer to let the couple go after a colleague picked them up, said Martha Jimenez, the outreach coordinator for Marin Literacy Program. 

The man had actually been stopped before and had his car impounded, after which he had sold it and bought another one because he feared officers would recognize the vehicle. The couple now limits their driving, and the literacy program is looking for an English tutor to visit their home. 

Another local man, a legal resident who works in aquaculture, said co-workers have asked him to be their go-to driver if they are ever pulled over. He said he has heard stories of police officers giving people 30 minutes to find someone to take away a car to escape impounding. 

Robin Carpenter, the executive director of the literacy program, said she knows of an undocumented nanny who landed a $3,000 bill after her car was impounded as a result of driving without a license.

Countywide, there are an estimated 14,000 unauthorized immigrants, or 5.6 percent of the population, according to a 2011 study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Because the Department of Motor Vehicles requires a social security number on applications, undocumented Californians are forced into a predicament: They can either drive and risk being pulled over—and having their car impounded—or forgo driving altogether, limiting their access to jobs and education.  

And there are safety concerns. The text of AB 60 notes that research conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that about 20 percent of fatal car accidents involve an unlicensed or invalidly licensed driver.

California is the 11th state to pass similar legislation, according to the National Immigration Law Center. The bill was among others that passed the legislature this fall to help undocumented immigrants. 

Gov. Brown signed a measure that opens the way for undocumented people to obtain licenses to practice law, and another that criminalizes the intimidation of employees by threatening to report them to law enforcement.

Under the new law, when undocumented applicants go to the DMV, they will have to sign an affidavit that they are not authorized to be in the country, a requirement meant to deter American citizens with revoked licenses from surreptitiously getting on the road again. 

And the license itself will be slightly different. The front will bear a “DP,” for driver’s privileges, as opposed to the typical “DL,” and the back will include a statement that it can’t be used for federal purposes, such as going through airport security.

Those markings are meant to comply with a federal requirement from the 2005 REAL ID Act, which states that no ID available to noncitizens can be used for federal purposes. 

Neither the license nor any documentation used to obtain it can be used against the individual in immigration proceedings, criminal cases or detentions. 

And a new law called the TRUST Act further severs links between local police and immigration authorities by stipulating that an undocumented immigrant detained by local police cannot be handed over to federal immigration officials unless the person is charged with a significant offense, such as a violent felony.

Still, potential applicants could be fearful of carrying a license that marks them as undocumented. But it’s better than the alternative, said Martin Steinman, executive director of the Canal Alliance, which serves low-income immigrants in Marin. 

“I can see that that would be a reasonable fear, and I wouldn’t drive with this license in Arizona,” he said, explaining that in that state it could be used as prima facie evidence that they are undocumented. “[But] it’s hard for me envision many scenarios now where someone would be better off without any license at all, rather than with this marked license.” 

Mr. Steinman warned of potential scammers who might promise they can expedite the process for a fee. He has already heard of at least one such scam popping up after AB 60 passed.

 

The Canal Alliance will host a workshop in Spanish to inform people about the law, at their office at 91 Larkspur Street in San Rafael, on Oct. 25 at 5:30 p.m. To reserve a seat, call (415) 454.2640.